Speakeasy with Jason Hartley

Decatur author explains genius that hurts your brain

In his new book The Advanced Genius Theory, Decatur-based author Jason Hartley tries to explain the most baffling choices of pop culture's greatest artists. Hartley blogs at advancedtheory.blogspot.com and will lay out his theory at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club on Thurs., May 20, at 7 p.m.

How would you sum up The Advanced Genius Theory for the uninitiated?

It started out with a simple observation. Lou Reed used to be really great, but then he got terrible. Rather than just assume that sucking was the inevitable conclusion to every artist's career, my friend Britt Bergman and I explored some alternative explanations. We seized upon one idea in particular: Maybe if Reed was ahead of his time when he was fronting the Velvet Underground, then isn't it possible that he would still be ahead of his time in the present day? And perhaps his evolution, or "advancement" as it came to be called, would be so much more pronounced that it would take longer and longer for us to understand his work.

Central to the theory is this, people were very comfortable in the 1980s saying that Bob Dylan had "lost it," that he had completely lost the sense of what is good. Our argument was that it is much more likely that you have lost it, not Dylan, based on not only his body of work, but his encyclopedic knowledge of American music. It just makes sense to me that he is on a different plane than most of us, but most people don't like it when someone is smarter than they are, so they find a reason to hate them.

Your book argues that Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks is a moment of George Lucas' advanced genius. When I see Jar Jar Binks, it makes my brain hurt. Is that because it's so advanced? Will it ever stop hurting my brain?

Jar Jar is Chewbacca with a vaguely Caribbean patois instead of a bear's growl. If you'd like to ruin Star Wars for yourself, remember this the next time you watch it. Chewbacca is exactly as dumb – or awesome – as Jar Jar. But instead of letting that ruin Star Wars, let that idea soothe your brain as you watch The Phantom Menace.

How do I work on improving my appreciation for advanced genius? Should I lock myself in my room with a stack of Bob Dylan records from the '80s until they start to sound good?

That would work if you sincerely want to like Bob Dylan's records from the '80s. My recommendation is to choose something that you sort of don't like by someone you love, and then lock yourself in your room. You can start by liking it ironically, but keep listening until the ironic stage is over – there is no irony in advancement – and you sincerely like it. Then move on to the next challenging record. Eventually, you'll reach the advanced state of mind, and you'll be able to see the good in everything.

Do you think KFC's Double Down is advanced culinary genius?

I have to leave that to fast-food experts. Advancement has clearly defined guidelines, but they get blurry when they are applied outside the arts. It's tempting to label the Double Down advanced because it seems so calculated to piss people off. There is a kind of advancement called the "advanced irritant." But often the stupidly awesome are nothing more than that, so we have to resist calling them advanced. Plus, it has fewer calories than many salads you'll find in supposedly healthier restaurants. You might say that the killer salad is more subtle than the Double Down.

What about "outsider" advanced genius? Do you have to be famous to be advanced?

I'm sure there are unrecognized geniuses out there, and I'm also sure that some of them have advanced. One wonders what would have happened to Bob Dylan had he never been discovered. Maybe he would end up like the guy playing the guitar outside the Brick Store. The beauty of the advanced is that you never can predict what they will do. The only thing that is certain is that, at first, it will hurt your brain.

The Advanced Genius Theory by Jason Hartley. Scribner. $15. 288 pp.

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